2005: Industry veterans such as Gretchen Hornung to buy, sell and brainstorm

Orlando, Fla.

The slow rain that fell on Day 2 of the PGA Merchandise Show may have dampened spirits of some who trudged between the Orange County Convention Center and nearby hotels. But Gretchen Hornung was unaffected. She has been down this road before.

In fact, Hornung has experienced virtually everything the PGA Show has to offer because of an attendance record that’s nearly perfect: She’s made it to 50 of the 52 annual gatherings – missing only the first show in 1954 and in 1958, when she was giving birth to one of her four sons.

During that stretch she has seen the show transform from a parking lot gathering to a mega-industry summit. And in recent years, she’s watched it wane.

In the beginning, she attended the show as the wife of the late Bob Hornung Sr., a former president of the Manufacturers and Distributors Association, who ran Hornung’s Golf Products.

Now 78, she comes to the expo with her oldest son, Bob Jr., continuing to run the Fond du Lac, Wis., family business that began selling golf ball dispensers to pro shops in 1936 and has evolved into a multimillion-dollar distributor specializing in golf accessories.

Hornung’s fondest memories date to the early years, when the show resembled a traveling circus, complete with trailers, tents and picnic tables from which vendors sold their goods.

It was in those days, she remembers, that minor happenings by today’s standards – such as the rain – could have a major impact.

“I remember one year it started coming down so hard, but Bob just rolled up his pants, took off his shoes and kept writing orders,” Hornung said. “And the water started coming under the tent. It got deep, and there was sawdust and all kinds of things floating around, and I was thinking, ‘You’re gonna get bit by something!’ But he stayed there and wrote orders until the very last.”

In the years shortly after World War II, a small group of merchandisers, manufacturers and distributors – including the Hornungs – began journeying to Florida every winter, following the club pro community who traveled to the area to work second jobs and compete in PGA winter tournaments.

There, they would display their goods, often out of the trunks of cars at golf course parking lots. As the pros finished their rounds, they visited with the sales representatives to examine the latest wares and place orders for the summer season.

Selling goods was such a priority back then that Hornung and her children jammed into their car – along with all their merchandise – for the road trip to Florida. It was a family policy to stop at any golf course along the way for a quick sales pitch.

“That was important to us,” Hornung said. “We were all friends. We knew all the pros, and they’d often invite us for dinner or to stay the night.”

Said John Zurek, the PGA of America’s senior director of marketing services: “(The Hornungs) were among the early pioneers along with Ernie Sabayrac,” one of the industry’s legends and innovator of pro shop sales. In 1954, the PGA of America became involved in the event, realizing the need for better organization. The association cordoned off parking lots and sold exhibit space to manufacturers and salesmen.

“And out of those simple and humble beginnings became what now is this monstrous marketplace,” Zurek said.

The event was held at the PGA National Golf Club in Dunedin, Fla., through 1963, then moved to Port St. Lucie (Fla.) Country Club. From there, it bounced around between Palm Beach Gardens, Miami, and finally to its permanent home in Orlando in 1985.

Hornung has followed its odyssey and watched its metamorphosis.

“This year the companies don’t have the big displays that took away the people that were (our) buyers,” she said. “This year, it seems like it’s falling back into what it used to be more and more, like maybe 15 or 20 years ago.”

Hornung still is quite active in the family business, serving as its CEO. She attends meetings and consults with her son. But it’s attending the show that she enjoys most.

On this occasion she was in a particularly reflective mood. Pulling out a scrapbook, Hornung shared one of her most cherished items, a two-page letter from golf historian Herb Graffis, co-founder of the National Golf Foundation, to her husband when she had taken ill in 1980.

“How I would enjoy getting up there for a refresher course with Gretchen and you,” Graffis wrote. “Your First Lady is having a tough time, but sweet thoughts, clean living and a beautiful constitution will patch her up complete and soon.”

Today, Hornung’s health is just fine. And she has no doubt about where she’ll be this time next year.

Said Hornung, with a smile: “I’ll be back.”


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